Our overnight bus from Sihanoukville to Siem Reap was uneventful (thanks to Andy who left us with a handful of sleeping pills to get us to the end of our trip!). The guesthouse we booked offered free pick-up at the bus station so as soon as we exited, we were able to avoid the massive group of tuk tuk drivers hassling people for their business.
We had to wait a few hours before we could check in since we arrived so early in the morning so we went to grab breakfast, ran a few errands and biked around town for the day.The next morning, we woke up bright and early at 5 AM for our all-day adventure to Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. Unsure of how many days we’d want to explore the temples, we purchased a one day pass for $20 each (also sold are 3 day passes for $40 or one week passes for $60) with the thought that we could always purchase another one day pass if we wanted to see more.
The reason for the early wake up was to catch the sunrise at our first stop, Angkor Wat, the largest religious structure in the world. We were warned that the place would be crawling with tourists trying to capture their own sunrise photos, but it wasn’t as bad as we thought and were able to capture more than enough photos. Built in the 12th century in dedication to Hinduism, Angkor Wat is massive (once we went inside, we hardly saw anyone) and equally impressive. The ornate details and carvings are still visible even though the mostly sandstone temple is slowly eroding away. Just imagine how decorated the temple was with these intricate carvings on every surface of a structure that spans over 400 acres. It was amazing! We spent close to two hours in and around the grounds of Angkor Wat before jumping back in our tuk tuk. Angkor Wat is just one of the many temples, monuments and shrines in the vicinity which covers more than 15 miles. The tuk tuk driver we hired for the day took us from temple to temple. We spent 10 hours visiting and exploring eight of the 72 temples and religious structures each unique and different in their own way. I won’t tell you about each and every one, instead, we’ll just share our two favorites.
Our next stop was Bayon, a Buddhist temple built in the late 12th century complete with 37 towers. Almost every tower has four carved faces each pointing in a cardinal direction. From afar, the temple looks completely uniform but up close, you can see how each stone was fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces. The large stone faces have become some of the most famous images connected to Khmer art and architecture. Inside was like a giant maze with passage ways, shrines and open window sills all looking like they were about to crumble. Our other favorite was the Buddhist temple of Ta Prohm. I loved this temple because it was in complete shambles and tinted a faint red and green color from its jungle surroundings. The grounds and temple itself were completely overgrown with humungous roots and trees. All the other temples we saw that day were just an added bonus. In the end, we were completely happy with exploring for just one day and for us, traveling by tuk tuk was definitely the way to go. Many thanks to our friend, Anna Williams, for our Angkor Wat honeyfund! We’ll never forget our incredible day walking around the historic and ancient temples. Thank you so much!
The next day, we took advantage of the free 30 minute massages that our guesthouse offered and it was much appreciated after 10 hours of temple touring the day before. That evening, we walked around Pub Street in the city center before grabbing dinner at a noodle stall where Chris tried a popular Khmer dish called amok (very similar to yellow chicken curry). On our way home, we passed a bar with $1 margaritas and mojitos so we stopped for a drink. While we waited, Chris ordered a barbequed Khmer frog as a snack. Tasted just like chicken! I feel compelled to mention where we stayed because I think it attributed to why we really liked Siem Reap. We paid $18 a night (for two people), which is on the pricier end for backpackers in this area, for our three night stay at Golden Butterfly Villa. It was worth every penny. The guesthouse welcomed us with a cold iced tea, scented hand towels and legitimate snacks upon our arrival. In addition to our free pick-up at the bus station and free 30 minute massage, $18 a night also gets you a room with air-con and a fan, flat screen TV with HBO (where we were able to watch the Season 3 premiere of Game of Thrones), balcony/patio, free picnic for two, free bike rental and free coffee/tea and bananas all day. Plus, the staff was absolutely the nicest group of people we’ve met in Cambodia…so incredibly kind and gracious. They were literally honored to be serving us. When Chris asked to use their phone, they brought him fresh cut watermelon and tea for his phone call. Highly recommend a stay here!
The next morning we took a bus to our next destination and Cambodia’s second largest city – Battambang. We walked around town and hired a tuk tuk driver for the next day to take us around the countryside. The main reason we wanted to come to Battambang was to ride the bamboo train which was our first stop of the day. Used by locals, the bamboo train is a method of transportation for moving goods, cargo and passengers. Chris and I sat on our “train” which was simply made of flat bamboo poles on a metal frame. Our driver sat behind us to operate the small motorcycle engine and within seconds, we were riding down tracks. There is only a single lane train track so when you meet an oncoming train, one of the trains has to be disassembled and taken off the rails so the other train can pass. The drivers help each other with this process which only took a minute. However, locals who use the train (usually around 4 or 5 AM coming back from the city markets) will need to completely unload everything they are carrying which I’m sure takes a lot longer. The ride was loud and by no means smooth, but was so fun cruising through the country at 30km/hour on a rickety bamboo train! Cambodia is currently working with Vietnam and Thailand to create a new rail system connecting all of the countries so the bamboo train will likely not exist in a few years. I’m glad we were able to experience it while we could.
Our next stop was a winery set in the Cambodia countryside. The wine was pretty foul but I guess you can’t expect it to be amazing given the location. Next up was the Phnom Banan temple built in the mid-11th century. The structural style resembles that of Angkor Wat but this temple was much older. Lastly, we visited a killing cave from the days of the Khmer Rouge rule (more on this later) and a pagoda on a hilltop overlooking the plains. All in all, it was a busy day allowing us to accomplish everything we wanted to see (and more). We took a bus to Phnom Penh, the capital city and our last destination in Cambodia. After we found a decent guesthouse (quality of accommodation is not the best here and in no way compares to Siem Reap), we found a pretty good street stall selling fried noodles for $1 and then hired a tuk tuk driver to pick us up the next morning. The next morning, we hopped in our tuk tuk for a 30 minute ride outside of the city to Choeung Ek genocide center, the location of one of the largest killing fields from the Khmer Rouge regime.
We purchased tickets for the audio tour and were shocked and heartbroken to learn of the brutality that occurred throughout Cambodia in the 1970’s. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge restructured Cambodian society by destroying schools, banks, hospitals, temples, government buildings, etc. in an attempt to create a peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative. The entire population was forced to leave their homes and march into the countryside where they worked as slaves under horrendous conditions. The leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, had intellectuals, teachers, monks and community leaders killed and/or tortured. One of the main prisons used for torture in Phnom Penh sent almost all of the prisoners to their death in the Choeung Ek killing fields.
The tour took us through the former orchard where more than 20,000 Cambodians were executed in more than 200 mass graves. Bullets were costly so prisoners were mainly beaten to death by whatever tools were available – sticks, hoes, hammers, knives, and even sugar palm branches (which have very sharp ridges).On display were human remains and remnants of old clothes (which to this day continue to surface during heavy floods). We also saw the ‘killing tree’ which the Khmer Rouge used to bludgeon Cambodian babies to death. It was completely disturbing. The tour ended at the Memorial Stupa, which houses thousands of skulls and bones of those who passed in Choeung Ek. It’s estimated that within nearly four years of Pol Pot’s rule, two to three million Cambodians were killed – 25% of their total population. The stupa was built to honor all the genocide victims throughout Cambodia. The stories and accounts of what happened there are truly horrific. What was most shocking is that all of this happened just 35 years ago. Our hearts go out to the country and people who lived, died and suffered through this unthinkable time.We returned to Phnom Penh to run errands and prepare for our flight out of Cambodia the next morning. Since we are leaving mainland SE Asia (what we consider Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia), we thought we should do something you can’t easily experience in the States. We discussed going to the shooting range where you can fire AK47s, rocket launchers and grenades at still targets, coconuts or for an extra fee…live cows. Although I’m sure it would be a good time firing automatic weapons, the cost was pretty high so we settled for going out for pizza. We walked down to a river front restaurant and ordered a few beers and a “happy” pepperoni pizza from Happy Herb Pizza. As you can probably guess from the name, this was no ordinary pizza. It was surprisingly delicious and at $7 for a medium, I was definitely happy with our purchase…even several hours later.After just over two weeks in one of the friendliest countries we’ve visited, it was time to move on. The next morning, we took a tuk tuk to the airport to catch our flight out to Singapore!